Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 25, 2013 1:37 pm 
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Nothing exceeds like excess

Surely a sense of timeliness can't have led Martin Scorsese to film the story of Jordon Belfort, the junk stock czar whose multi-million dealing got him minor jail time and brought down his company. The tale of high energy Wall Street bottom feeders might better fit the beginning of the new millennium, when in fact a sharp little picture called Boiler Room directed by Ben Younger with Ben Affleck the star and Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi in good dramatic roles told this story with breathless accuracy and style and a real ability to describe the machinations and tensions involved. For the bigger financial disaster of recent years the timely film was J.C. Chandor's Margin Call. Chandor delivered the Wall Street collapse story with an elegance that should put Scorsese to shame. The older director instead seems swelled-headed and over-budgeted this time, lacking the discipline to deliver a precisely edited and will-paced narrative, without the sense of proportion to know Jordon Belfort's voiceover narrative is no Scarface epic, nor Goodfellas either. Above all this movie is a saga of failed and uneven tone and bad taste. Is it funny ha ha or funny disgusting and weird? Nobody seems to know, and you can't make a good movie, whatever your clout and prestige level, without a secure sense of tone. Scorsese delivers lots of oohs and ahs and yucks, but it doesn't hang together, and the empty spaces flowed out into an excessive three hours. You need three hours for an epic, or a passionate exploration. This is neither. There's an hour too much.

At the end all that's clear is that The Wolf of Wall Street is made up of outrageous set pieces and sick laughs more than moralizing and seeks to sustain an unsustainable mood of hysteria and doped-up excess. We are led to revel in the bronze blonde babes, thrown dwarfs, pet chimp, public fucking, coke-snorting off every body part, vintage Quaaludes, smashed Ferrari, wife exposing her crotch and talking dirty to a home surveillance camera; the protagonist on his yacht trying to bribe FBI men, the (strategically denied) homophobia, yacht sunk in a terrible storm off the Italian coast, FBI closing in for arrests. Now and again DiCaprio delivers one hell of a pumped-up pep-talk. But falling into a common flaw of biopics, Scorsese blows up his protagonist disproportionately and fails to show how his adrenalin trickled down to his company of salesmen. Also as with the genre, the picture is most memorable and illustrative in its early sequences that show how Belfort lost his stockbroker job in the big 1987 stock market crash and then discovered a legally dubious suburban "pink sheet" penny stock boiler room with 50% profits and became a star there and soon started his own. This is not pomposity but process, and it's interesting. The rest is slow and repetitious and obvious. For kitsch lifestyle excess this year Soderbergh's HBO Liberace film Behind the Candelabra is more precise and more historical.

This isn't really a biopic at all, of course: it just seems as drawn out as one. Really Belfort's story only covers a decade or so. For all this the source is Jordan Belfort's own published memoir, as adapted by "Sopranos" writer Terrence Winter -- who turns the story into a series of inflated TV episodes that confuse Wall Street crooks with gangsters. Okay, there may not be that much difference, but the Devil is in the details, and the details are what make a good movie.

This movie makes one ask: were Scorsese and DiCaprio really ever so good together? They seem to have egged each other on to more and more excesses of grandiosity, to each other's flashiest, but not best, work. Scorsese has long been a burnout, and DiCaprio, once a marvelous actor, is looking like one here too: a bronzed, glowing degenerate -- at 39. What DiCaprio gets to do in The Wolf of Wall Street is, in its way, fabulous. This is an actor ready for any challenge. He delivers high energy salesmanship so contagious and testosterone/adrenalin-rich as the coked-up, Quaaluded-up, boozed-up Belfort it may make you want to give him your life savings, or join his team. But is this acting -- or coaching? (Belfort becomes a motivational speaker -- a life coach.) The level of hysteria, alternating with intoxication, reaches its zenith with DiCaprio as Belfort pitching to his giant roomfuls of salespeople, and its nadir when he crawls out of a posh club after he's OD'd on vintage 'Ludes, looking like a human turned into a large worm.

These are memorable moments. But lots of other films that tell better, more interesting stories have such moments too. DiCaprio can't carry over the hyped-up salesmanship into his personal scenes with Jonah Hill as his closest associate or Margot Robbie as his high-life wife Naomi. He lacks the recognizable tone and aura, the sweetness he had even in Baz Luhrmann's overblown Gatsby. This dialogue is crap when you compare it to the silver-toned venom DiCaprio delivered so suavely in Django Unchained. Chalk it up to his loyalty to "Marty," who gives his witty pal Fran Lebowitz a moment as a judge here - a wink-wink, but not her finest hour either.

In this superficially impressive but ultimately disappointing movie there are several vivid performances besides DiCaprio's, Rob Reiner as Belfort's father Max; Kyle Chandler as the appealing, real FBI agent out to get Belfort; Jean Dujardin as a genteelly crooked Swiss banker; many others are good. We might have done without Matthew McConaughey's starved AIDS-ravaged Dallas Buyers Club look as Belfort's original mentor, Mark Hanna, but of course he is good, and the scene of the two men is memorable and repellant. But so are all the scenes, and we get the point about two hours before they're all done. Where is Scorsese's perspective?

The Wolf of Wall Street, 179 mins., opened in the US, France, and other countries 25 Dec., 2013; in the UK 17 January 2014.

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